Monday, 5 May 2014

Pepetela builds an empire




This week is devoted to Angola. We'll begin with its greatest novelist. Pepetela was born in Angola in 1941. Although of Portuguese descent, his parents had also been born in Angola. He grew up in the multiracial city of Benguela, which allowed him to mingle with Angolans from several ethnicities. A journalist uncle introduced him to several left-wing thinkers and writers. He matured around the time Angola and Portugal started a war, and in 1963 he joined the MPLA, a revolutionary movement that intended to turn the country independent. Since his earliest books he’s been a relentless chronicler of Angolan society and history. His wartime experiences served as the material for the novel Mayombe (1980). The country’s turbulent history has showed up in several of his novels: the 17th Dutch rule (A Gloria Família), the 19th century (Yaka). He’s also written about the disappointment of revolution (A Geração da Utopia), the transition from socialism to capitalism (The Return of the Water Spirit), corruption in the modern ruling class (Predadores, one of his best novels). Lueji, o nascimento de um império (1990) is a novel that mixes history, myth and the present and future of Angola.

The backbone of this novel concerns the myth of Princess Lueji, ruler of the Lunda Empire, who inherits the power from her dying father and starts a civil war with her brothers who vie for power. In a parallel plot, taking 400 years later, we have a troupe of Angolan dancers preparing a show at the end of the millennium. This is an interesting novel, reaching back into the past and extending into the future, mixing an intertribal war before the arrival of the Europeans with millennial celebrations of an Angola searching a place for itself. Two of the themes of the novel are tradition versus progress and identity versus artificiality.


Teenager Lueji becomes queen because of her violent brother Tchinguri. He’s a proud warrior, irascible, envious, who likes to get into brawls and rape women. He constantly sets his father, chief Kondi, ill at ease because he fears he’ll be a tyrannical chief because of his bad temper and neglectful of the practical aspects of life, like farming and cattle raising, dreaming instead only of great feats like conquest and enslaving other tribes. The Lunda Kingdom is a peaceful place under Kondi and his circle of counsellors, devoted to farming. This peace doesn’t sit well with Tchinguri, anxious for action and who considers himself the “only one who can lead this people to create an empire.” But nobody wants that since war is uncertain. Times are peaceful and they live insulated from the world; they have some trade with Arabs, even though Kondi objects to selling slaves, and rumours of foreigners (Europeans) have reached them but they’ve never seen them. Kondi also does not want Tchinguri for another reason as we’ll see soon.

One day, a drunken Tchinguri has an altercation with Kondi and pushes him against a beam, crushing his head on it. Tchinguri and his younger brother, Chinyama, flee the scene. The dying Kondi convenes the counsel and breaks tradition by choosing the loyal and traditionalist Lueji as the next ruler, a controversial decision since she’s a woman. This is a good moment to add that the novel has many longueurs, entire conversations take place without breaks or quotation marks, just continuous dialogue. Here’s an example, I’ve decided not to translate the African words since that’s how we read the book in Portuguese too:

Only later did she know the details of the meeting, her father lying on the litter, carried on the shoulders of twelve men in order to remain on a higher level than the others, with his weak voice announcing I don’t want punishments for my children but the lukano only to Lueji belonged, the murmur in the Counsel because of the revelation’s unexpectedness, muata Nandonge shouting the lukano belongs to Tchinguri, his friend, who’d be a great soba, but muata Kakele counter-argued, Tchinguri has already proven that he’ll take Lunda to ruin, if he’s despotic now even more will he be when he yields the lukano, we’ll all tremble at night without knowing what day will the next, which received the support of muata Kakolo, Tchinguri is not fit but Lueji is a woman, never had a woman ruled Lunda’s throne, women were important but not to that degree, Lueji is my daughter, she has my blood and to my blood belongs the right of the lukano, about which Kondi was right as muata Vungi acknowledged, joining the argument to suggest Chinyama’s name, his friend and confident, which increased the agitation even more, for that’s how Counsels were, the chief was respected only relatively and especially now that he was dying, one could read in his face the advance of agony and indeed only the power of the lukano on his arm stopped the uproar from growing, the spirits could punish with some drought or plague if they hit each other disrespecting the chief (…)

And it goes on like this for almost two more pages, culminating in Kondi’s death. It is not, however, the end of his role in the novel for Pepetela uses a neat trick throughout the novel, each character is given a soliloquy to speak to the reader in the first person. The first is Kondi, who explains why he chose Lueji:

How great a pain to disinherit Tchinguri, the bravest, smartest of the Lundas. But also the most unbelieving, the most impious, the destroyer of secular beliefs that can keep my spirit and my memory alive. So it was necessary to eliminate him. What would be of men if they guessed that everything can be told in a thousand different ways, each one true? What would be of Lunda if men believed in Tchinguri? Nothing of what had been would be again and who can assure us that it’d better? Not Lueji, she’ll conserve the beautiful traditions of the Tubungo, she’ll be their voice and reason, she won’t invent new roads just because she’s tired of the routine of fetching water in the river by the same track. May then the spirits of the ancestors illuminate her. She has Kandala to speak with them.

Kondi believes Lueji will rule according to the old ways, obeying the commands of Kandala, without changing things, ensuring that the power of the family remains strong. He feared Tchinguri in his place because he did not respect the old ways, didn’t believe in the ancient myths. “You can’t govern well if you end up believing your own lies. Necessary nevertheless, but lies,” Tchinguri says to Lueji once. He understands the lukano is a tool, as is the power to call down the rain, to control the people, and he’d certainly use it, but he also realizes that it’s all artifice. He also believes in a meritocracy and social climbing, wherein men could ascend to positions of power thanks to their bravery and fighting skills. “Dangerous ideas for the Tubungo,” says Lueji, who’s cautious at first not to make too many changes.

Lueji, crowned queen, wears the lukano, symbol of her magical power, but she can’t wear it when she’s menstruating. Kandala is the wizard, the man who mediates the world of the living and the spirits. He explains to her not to show herself in public when she’s without the lukano because she’s without “magical powers.” This causes many complications for her. “She thought, seated in the sculptured chair, that she’d have to invent stratagems for those periods if there were maka and her intervention were required. Men don’t have these problems, they can use the lukano every day. And, power was made for men. I’ll have to be smarter than them.” Before her father dies, he gives her some advices on how to rule. This book is very Machiavellian in this sense:

“When you don’t know what to do, buy some time until you do. That’s the secret. The chief must always seem to know more than the others.”
“I can’t father. I don’t know it, I don’t want it, I don’t like it.”
“You’ll like when you feel in others fear of you. It’s an addiction one quickly gets.”

This part of the novel is about power, the art of ruling and also the personal life of the queen. We see her fall in love with Ndumba ua Tembo, a great hunter and warrior, saving him from a lion when they go hunting together – he wanted to impress her, but she’s the one leaves him awestruck. Lueji is not the delicate thing everybody thinks she is and soon enough she starts making changes that the counsel does not appreciate. Things sour when her counsel tries to convince her to destroy Tchinguri lest he become too dangerous and a threat, since he’s rumoured to be building an army to declare war on her. Because of her weakness to their influence and his thirst for power, civil war does start and she has to use her wits to find a solution. Lueji journeys to self-awareness and maturity, learning that she’s ruling for the profit of her father’s lineage, subordinated to Kandala who exerts tremendous power over her. This echoes a theme in the future storyline, tradition versus progress. “Any perfecting is an adulteration. And no culture remains static. That’s what our traditionalists wanted, in order not to lose privileges,” a writer says in the future.

400 years later we have the story of Lu, a girl in college and also a ballerina, in love with Uli. Lu’s father is white, descendent from Portuguese, and married a black woman. So Lu is a symbol of the ethnic diversity of modern Angola. I confess I did not find this story very interesting. I think Pepetela wastes too much time writing about Lu and a friend vying for Uli, while trying to juxtapose this with the civil war in the past. It felt a bit forced to me. More interesting is the dance show they’re preparing. The show is a state-sponsored cultural event with international ambition: they want this to put Angola on the map. They’re spending rivers of money on it and have gotten the best people to work on it, including a famous Czech stage director. But the Czech and the dancers don’t get along because he wants to make a stereotypical show, artificial and fake, pure kitsch, that doesn’t reflect true Angolan identity. Of course this makes them wonder what a true Angolan identity is. Eventually someone decides to adapt the story of Lueji into music. In the future Tchinguri is called Kinguri since many versions coexist, this is all oral knowledge after all, no true version exists. Lu gets a friend a novelist friend, who has the habit of talking in the first person when the rest of the novel is in the third, to write a libretto for them. Which begs the question, is the version of the myth also written by someone in the future? And this change to the show prompts them to discuss Angolan history and culture. Even with the new angle they have problems, since the novelist, a cynic, is weary of chauvinism and the fine line between tradition and nationalism. He argues that traditional power is based on submission. How to make progress without losing their culture and identity?, he asks. The novel was written in 1990 when Angola was still trying to be a Soviet Republic and Russia had a lot of power over it, as did Cuba: the writer Ondjaki, for instance, still had Cuban teachers. Hence the joke about the Czech stage director, a man sent from the friendly Soviet Union. Of course no one could predict that by the end of the millennium Angola would be a free market capitalist society ruled by a family oligarchy. This is certainly an interesting meditation on identity and history, uneven I think, but remarkable many times.

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